07/17/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 09/15/2014 05:59 EDT

How Big Tobacco skirts Ottawa's ban on flavoured cigarettes

They look like Fruit Roll-ups, they smell like bubble gum, but they can kill like tobacco.

Watermelon-flavoured cigarillos, maple syrup cigars that smell like warm pancakes, skinny minty-flavoured cigarettes that look like a lipstick.

They are all part of the latest collection of starter tobacco products with obvious kid-friendly appeal. And they work.

Research shows these products are six times more popular with youth than with adults.

What's more, a recent study showed that more than half of tobacco users in Grades 9 through 12 smoke flavoured products, and the Health Canada survey it was based on estimated that every month about 29,000 teenagers try one of these fruity or minty nicotine delivery devices for the first time.

That's a lot of kids getting their hands on a product that was supposedly banned four years ago by the federal government, after an election promise by Stephen Harper.

At a 2008 campaign stop in Welland, Ont., Harper held up a colourful box of candy flavoured tobacco sticks, and pointed a finger at the tobacco industry.

"Flavouring them and packaging them like candy, gum or Fruit Roll-ups, this is simply not right. It cannot continue," he said.

But it has continued. To this very day, those flavoured tobacco products remain on store shelves across Canada. That's because, rather than a complete ban, Ottawa chose to target only products of a certain weight (1.4 grams or less) with a particular filter.

Without missing a beat, the companies quickly repackaged the products to be slightly heavier, and changed the filter. Presto, they were legal again, with one distributor boasting that rumours of a ban on flavoured cigars were greatly exaggerated.

What's more, in enacting its ban in 2010, Ottawa did not even attempt to do away with the most popular tobacco flavouring of all — menthol. (The European Union has banned it and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering one.)

Studies show menthol is the most effective gateway nicotine product for beginner smokers, and that has been confirmed by the tobacco industry's own research as well as by independent scientists.

Harder to quit

Tobacco companies know menthol anaesthetizes the throat, reducing the initial discomfort and making those difficult first puffs much easier. Menthol also makes it harder to quit, though scientists aren't exactly sure why.  

Now manufacturers are rolling menthol-infused tobacco into slender tubes and squeezing these into lipstick-sized packages, creating elegant cigarettes that scream "skinny" and appeal to weight conscious young women.

"The innovation is to design a tobacco product that appeals to the kids in the 21st century" says David Hammond, a tobacco researcher with the University of Waterloo's School of Public Health.

It's a good business plan, considering that 70 per cent of future smokers start before their 18th birthday.

And right now, one in ten Canadian kids is smoking, on their way to a lifelong habit that will kill one out of every two long-term users.

"Most people are surprised" at these numbers, Hammond says. "Tobacco feels like yesterday's issue."

Low profile gains

Tobacco smoking is rarely in the headlines anymore. Ottawa has cut funding to anti-smoking groups, and Statistics Canada has ended its long-running annual survey on tobacco use, instead consolidating tobacco research into a broader biennial survey that also looks at alcohol and drug use.

"So we'll now have less information, less detailed information on who's smoking and who's smoking what, and I think that's unfortunate," says Hammond.

But smoking is just as deadly as it ever was. A few weeks ago, the Canadian Cancer Society released its annual cancer statistics. They show that lung cancer is still the leading cause of cancer death in both men and women.

The report also identified tobacco as the single greatest avoidable risk factor for cancer.

Today, one out of every five Canadians continues to smoke — around 5.8 million people — a number that hasn't budged by much in almost a decade.

Tobacco control groups are growing increasingly concerned that efforts to reduce tobacco use have stalled.

Meanwhile, big tobacco never sleeps. Tobacco lobbyists actively visit federal politicians, monitoring any possible changes in tobacco regulations. And new products like e-cigarettes are springing up in the marketplace.

For the tobacco industry, the objective seems to be to recruit as many new smokers as possible before a fresh regulatory barrier slams into place.

They've had a four-year window since Ottawa claimed to be banning flavoured tobacco.

And while at least three provinces are working on their own bans, at this point there is still no law in effect in Canada to rid the shelves of tobacco in its attractive new cloak of many flavours.